by Justin Jasso (@jjasso007)
Many films have been made addressing aspects of history. Some are stories that are well-known such as the life of Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the story of Jackie Robinson. Others are less known stories like the creation of Facebook, the story of a slave who took on tome in Spartacus and of arguably the most powerful woman to ever live in Cleopatra. Such it is with the latest film by director Wong Kai wai, The Grandmaster. The film follows the life of the legendary Ip Man, known for being the martial arts teacher of Bruce Lee.
The film begins with an artistic fight in the rain, with Ip Man (Tony Leung) battling a dozen men. At the end, Ip stands the winner and we are given insight into his upbringing, his beginning of martial arts marriage to his wife Cheung Wing-sing. Ip Man grows to understand the philosophy behind martial arts and its harmony with the world itself. It’s during this time of peace that disturbance comes when Gong Yutian, a martial arts master from northern China, arrives proclaiming the North superior and that the south needs someone to meet their heir. Ip man is voted in and thus begins a road that would alter the course of Ip Man’s life. From the relationship that couldn’t be with Gon Er (Zhang Ziyi), the Second Sino-Japanese War, to family hardships and trying to sustain for one’s family when things can seem hopeless. Such was the life of Ip Man.
One may watch the trailer for The Grandmaster and believe this is your standard Kung-fu / Wu Xie film. And while the elements which made films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers enjoyable to watch are all here, director Wong Kai wai is more known for his stories of love and his artistic approach. As it so happens, both of these elements are on display. One could say the drama is more the forefront of the dialogue and propels the film, as is the philosophy behind the martial arts and the idea that martial arts is more mental than physical, as is seen in the battle between Ip Man and Gong Yutian.
In terms of the fighting element, it is very artistic, which is by design. Some may complain that they wanted the fast paced choreography seen in the previous mentioned films, but Wong Kai takes it in a slightly different direction. Instead, he provides us with a beautiful dance between partners, of sorts, in the fight sequences, using slow motion and pauses to capture the skill of the participants. It is like watching a beautiful waltz performed by expert dancers. Being able to see aspects in slow motions gives us more appreciation for the arts and the skill involved, as well as the mastery of such choreography which is provided by the talented Yuen Woo-ping (Kill Bill, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).
Credit has to be given to Tony Leung for his performance as Ip Man. For all intents and purposes, Tony was able to capture the essence of Ip Man from his days when he had the martial arts world on his shoulders to the days when he had near nothing and struggled just to provide for his family. He takes the role and plays it with a humble consciousness, leading us on his journey through the stages of one’s life. To understand how it feels to fall in love with another, while being married, but having the ability to repress such feelings and stay true to ones vows. Looking in his eyes tells the story while the body speaks another. True signs of a great actor. Zhang Ziyi is a little more one note for a portion of the film, and it isn’t until a certain event that she allows certain emotions to consume her, which leads to a life altering event. It’s after this event that the true artistry of this lovely actress is displayed, showing us the pain that burned in her for much of the characters life, the hopes and dreams that was held and how close things came to fruition while falling short at the end of her life. It was thoroughly enjoyable to watch each of these actors take us on their individual journeys. .
Having seen this film at an advanced screening some months back, I was privy to the two hour plus version that was released in China. The film that was released here is cut down by about 20-30 minutes, which is going to affect the story telling in some manner. That being said, the underlying tone and narrative of the story will be in place. Keep in mind, this is not an all action film, but more of a drama / philosophical centered piece with well-placed fight elements interlaced. The story of Ip Man is not a topic well known on U.S. shores and will not be for everyone. But if you’re looking for quality martial arts with an artistic approach and a journey through the lives of a great man, then The Grandmaster is something definitely worth checking out.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars